Winter – 1965, We leave Japan for Vietnam…Part 1
This section rated PG-13!
After a few weeks in Japan, we were all loaded up with more equipment, had off loaded a bunch of Marines and replaced them with others so the time came to head on to Vietnam. Before we left, I was lucky to meet and become entangled with a beautiful young lady who lived on the base. She was probably one of the most free spirited, tense, open & giving girls I’ve ever met. Even after all these years I still think about her. She was a Navy brat and her life had been full of the kind of uprooting that can happen to those kids. All of 16 years old, with long brown hair, brown eyes and a smile to melt the hardest of heart, we hung out together and just talked. She was so use to being hit on, by thousands of sailors, soldiers and Marines, that she was totally impervious to charm. Her fear of rape was palpable. Even as we sat or walked together talking, guys would wander over and try to engage her in conversation, usually drifting into sexual banter. She would get rid of them quickly. Occasionally I would help, sometimes shouting out to them that she wasn’t available before they even got close. She explained to me that since she had turned 12, and finally understood what all that attention was about, she had been running between buildings on this base, and all the others where she’d lived, to avoid having to talk to all those guys that would stop her & ask her for a date…or worse. She had parents, and they did watch out for her, but there was only so much they could do to protect her. I happened by one of those times when she tired of running and longed for a normal conversation with someone her age. Although our encounters were brief, they were powerful. Years later and still I feel for her. I hope she made it.
The ship was loaded, we all scrambled aboard and set sail. After a couple days, we arrived somewhere off of Japan and dropped anchor. I can’t remember why (specialized equipment installation maybe?) or where except that we dropped anchor offshore, also put out the sea anchors so we weren’t at a traditional port. It’s here that my friends got together, collected some money, and offered to pay for a prostitute for me because they were tired of telling people that I was only a virgin, not a homo (why anyone would care, or equate the late loss of virginity with gayness I have no idea). One of the guys knew where to go so I suspect that this was a sea port frequented by the US Navy.
My best friend was really insistent about it, and I figured, well, if HE thought it was such a big deal, I’d go ahead and let them pay. I was still content with waiting until I was back in the states, and I did not feel the least bit embarrassed about it.
When we got shore leave, the guys took me over to an actual Japanese whore house. It was a middle class house in a middle class neighborhood. We, the five of us, after a short taxi ride, walked into the place near dusk in our uniforms and my friends explained to the madam that we’d all like to be ‘entertained’. Prices were discussed and amounts agreed. Four or five of the working girls drifted into the living room, where we were all sitting on big pillows on the floor with a couple low tables and other traditional Japanese furniture, including hanging paper lamps. The madam made small talk with us and here and there told us the rules of the house. There was a servant girl who prepared us some snacks and served beer, which we paid for. Shapiro beer I believe. It wasn’t long before I was outed as a virgin, which elicited lot’s of interest and laughter from the girls. Two of my friends made their selections and disappeared into a couple of the many small rooms. Finally, I decided which girl I liked, a 20 year old with rounded features, shapely hips, pretty breasts, silky dark hair, a dusky voice and a winning smile. We had been talking for several minutes so I was comfortable with her already. We talked about price with the madam, asking for a discount since I was a virgin, pride took over so I paid myself, not allowing my friends to pay for me. By now, everyone was finished and had returned to the living room so the gal and I moved into a traditionally furnished Japanese bedroom, except this one had more substantial walls and a western style door, for modesty I suppose. But unlike most US bedrooms, this one had a small fountain with warm water and a shallow round tub…
The next day, while we were working unloading stuff, there was a guy working a line on a boat that was tied to the ship on the port side. The ship, being so much larger, would slowly bob up and down while a boat would rapidly bob up and down. And not always in sync. So, this guy was handling the line, trying to stay in sync with the two differing rhythms. The reason was to prevent the boat from drifting to far away from the ship. This is not easy to do because the line was 3″ diameter nylon so it was hard to hold onto, especially if wet, the bobbing of the boat and ship could sometimes be rather robust, the wind, having to work with a may west life preserver, feet slipping around in the goo in the bottom of the boat, and all those other little things. I’d been working the line about a half hour before the guy and he spelled me. He didn’t do very well from the beginning and I stood around and gave him some pointers before I went up top side. When doing this job, you must concentrate and it helps to be fresh. About 20 minutes after I scrambled up topside, there was a loud ‘snap’ and then some yelling and commotion on the port side. I wandered over to look over the side, and saw the guy who had spelled me lying in the bottom of the boat with several seamen and NCO’s hovering over him. He had missed loosening the line fast enough, the ship had bobbed upwards and the boat bobbed downwards and the 3″ line parted around 12 feet over his head. Since it was under so much tension (nylon line will double in length before it parts) that when it parted it snapped back like a rubber band and hit him full in the face. He was totally out of it and didn’t know what hit him. Shortly, the boat headed to shore with the guy and delivered him to a hospital. We never saw him again but the captain would give us an update every once in a while. He had to be shipped back to the states for extensive plastic surgery and I understand he lost an eye, or both, can’t remember. It did cause a delay in our departure for Nam.
It’s 2500 miles or so to Da Nang, Vietnam. When we finally left port, the weather was fair, blue skies, fluffy clouds, light breeze behind us traveling the same speed the ship was moving so it always seemed we were in a calm zone. Not a breath of air until evening and as we moved south the air temperature increased daily. The remarkable thing about this portion of the trip was the South China Sea. On the trip up from Okinawa to Japan , we were following on the heels of a typhoon so the skies were dark and the seas rough. This time, everything was calm and the first time I remember noticing how the sea looked. It was jade green! Some areas were a little milky but most of the trip the ocean was a beautiful shade of green. Remarkable. I was very happy to hang out up on the bridge and just watch the ocean flow by. It got hotter and hotter during the day as we traveled and on the 3rd day, the captain stopped the ship and invited anyone who wanted to swim to jump in. But first the machine guns were uncovered, loaded, and several practice rounds from each gun were fired into the sea…because of the sharks in the area. Twenty or thirty guys jump into the sea and yelled back that the sea was as warm as the air, so, I held back. Thirty minutes later, I decide I want to swim anyway and head down to my locker to change into my suit when the PA comes on and calls everyone back aboard. I got topside just in time to watch the last of the swimmers scrambling aboard while the gunners started blasting at several sharks that had all appeared at the same time. We hit one, and the others made short work of their wounded brother. While we were stopped, we did get the benefit of the following wind so the whole ship was cooler below decks so that was a relief.
By New Years Eve, 1965, there had been 636 US Military members killed in Vietnam. 1965 was the year when people in the states realized that we had a problem there. It was the year when the war began in earnest, Johnson was president and he had the US air force begin to bomb the shit out of the place. The North as well as the South. Operation ‘Flaming Dart’ & ‘Rolling Thunder’ and all those other obscure military names that you might recall happened in ’65. This was back in the days when we had a draft and many of the Marines we had on board the Oak Hill had volunteered for the Marines to avoid the Army draft. Many felt that if they had to go to a war zone, they would rather be with some of the toughest bad asses on earth, and be trained to be like them. I had purposely joined the Navy in order to NOT be like them. I didn’t mind going to a war zone, I’d asked to go there, felt that if I had to shoot someone before they shot me that I wouldn’t have a problem doing that, but also felt that it wasn’t very likely anyone would shoot at me. We were set to arrive at Da Nang harbor, Vietnam, January 1st, 1966.